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Old 7th August 2010, 09:36 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Fear not moderate radiation

Just reading an article in New Scientist on the harmful effects of radiation. It looks very much as if the common fear of almost any radioactivity is misplaced.

We are all exposed to a background radiation level of about 2.5 millisieverts per year. Legal limits run to about 3.5 millisieverts per year. But this seems to be ridiculously low.

The clue comes from studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A lot of people got hit with very high radiation doses, and their cancer rates were high, as we would expect. But it turns out that everyone who got hit with a single dose of 100 millisieverts or less showed no health problems at all, compared to people from other Japanese cities that were not bombed.

The author of the article suggests that 100 millisieverts should be taken as the threshold, below which radiation is harmless, and suggests a new legal maximum of 100 millisieverts per month.

By comparison, during radiotherapy for cancer, normal tissue is exposed to 20 sieverts radiation, spread over a period of about 5 weeks. It appears to do no measurable harm. 40 sieverts, focussed on the cancer, kills the cancer tissue. So 100 millisieverts per month would seem to be quite safe.

Basically, if we get paranoid about radiation, we should realise that we need a lot more than 40 times the normal background radiation dose, delivered in one hit, to harm us.

In this light, the levels of radiation that come to us from nuclear power, are harmless. Even small leaks of radioactive material, as have happened at places like Sellafield, are in fact, totally harmless.

Only a major event, such as Chernobyl can harm us. And such events can be prevented with a little care.
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Old 8th August 2010, 08:19 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

To play devil's advocate a moment, can we trust the studies performed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We're looking at nineteen forties technology being used with scant preplanning in a disaster zone of unprecedented size and unbelievable panic.
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Old 8th August 2010, 08:45 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

Devil's advocate.
On the other hand, this is the best kind of experiment (hopefully I can say that without being callous about the depth of human tragedy).

It is real world. It is people living lives in the 'normal' way - rather than laboratory volunteers. It is also one of the most intensively studied events in human history. And this is especially true in terms of medical follow up.

Admittedly, the intensity of radiation experienced had to be back calculated from known parameters, but his should not add an error of more than a few percentage points.

The result showing that 100 millisieverts in a single dose is harmless may be out by a small factor. Maybe it is only 80 millisieverts. However, that does not alter the conclusion that the current legal limit of 3.5 millisieverts per year is ridiculously conservative.

This understanding of human radiation tolerance is of enormous significance. For example : a very big part of the resistance to nuclear energy is based on the paranoid view that small radiation doses cause cancer. Also - it makes disposal of nuclear waste much more practical. To put it in everyday terms, if I buried a thousand tonnes of nuclear waste in a hole 500 metres deep, and back filled the hole, I could build a house on top, and live in that house quite safely.

If we can stop pointless fear and paranoia, it makes a practical approach to nuclear power generation, and disposal of nuclear waste a lot easier and a lot cheaper.
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Old 8th August 2010, 11:28 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

You make a very valid point there Skeptical. Unfortunately the paranoia about the tiniest amounts of radiation is massively fueled by the popular media and even if you could prove that the safe level is much higher than that currently set, I don't think the media would let the majority of the population lose their paranoia; it's far too lucrative a storyline.
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Old 9th August 2010, 01:26 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

Absolutely. Right now in the UK, everyone is freaking out because the offspring of a cloned cow got served to humans to eat.

No one can explain exactly why this is dangerous--honestly, I haven't read one reason--but the media is up in arms and the public is terrified of FRANKENCOWWWW!!!
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Old 9th August 2010, 01:35 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

It's a sad fact; they know that whipping up this kind of frenzy keeps a story going for much longer and sells much more (papers and advertising) than "People eat offspring of cloned cow and its completely safe" or "Nuclear power - no worries it's all safe". Those two would sell once but there's no real follow on. So lets stir up a panic and sell loads.
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Old 9th August 2010, 01:54 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

Offer me frankensteak at half price, and I will buy it up by the kilogram! Love steak, and I know damn well that a single genetic change in the parent cow is not going to change the taste, nutritional value, or toxicity of that meat.

But you are right about human stupidity. At the end of the day, most people are superstitious and fearful. They will believe anything if it is silly enough.

I did an internet search on astrology once, to answer a person arguing with me. I found that there are almost 25,000 published studies on the validity of astrology, and almost without exception, they show it to be 100% bulldust! Yet my painful experience shows that, if you talk to an astrology enthusiast, and show them the data, and they will simply ignore it.

Why is it that good scientific data, and good logic gets ignored?
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Old 9th August 2010, 02:53 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

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Originally Posted by skeptical View Post
Why is it that good scientific data, and good logic gets ignored?
Never been able to understand it myself - you see it everywhere though. I won't start listing because many of them can be very contentious. I think if the truth does not match the world view that you want to believe in then many (most) humans seem to have an incredible ability to simple ignore it. Ultimately we are far better than ostriches at that.
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Old 9th August 2010, 04:14 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

I think their may be some hope. A lot of people over here have seen the Frankensteak panic for the absurdity it is. Science and technology are moving so fast now that people (In the long run) can't afford to be afraid and ignorant of it.

I believe the dark days of the nineties/ early two thousands, where postmodernism and the general consensus held that science was just another 'viewpoint' equal to any other, are receding.

Of course, I could be wrong.
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Old 10th August 2010, 12:51 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

After 15 years of large scale cultivation of GM crops world wide, it may be that a few people (the fast learners) are beginning to realise that they do not represent disaster.

I wonder what the next bit of nonsense will be?
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Old 10th August 2010, 03:04 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

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Originally Posted by skeptical View Post

I wonder what the next bit of nonsense will be?

If we dilute one dollar in the ocean, its essence will ensure the world's finance keeps healthy.
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Old 12th August 2010, 10:45 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

I highly doubt that humanity will ever open their eyes to every truth that is out there. (And the truth is the truth, proven or not, whatever a truth might be. What we interpret as the truth may not actually be the honest, natural truth.)


And so, debates will go on like this until the end of the species. I actually fear for the well-being of the general population, solely due to the fact at how selfish a human in general is and how greatly we as a species actually lack foresight. People are scared of things like cloning and radiation, when in truth the risks that we SHOULD be afraid of, we are blind to. (Pollution, anyone? The extermination of animal species? The clear-cutting of rain forest in such amounts as to affect the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere?)


I think the true problem with humanity is our arrogance. We believe ourselves to be the ultimate species. We believe ourselves to be above our planet. We take and selfishly hoard what the earth has given us. How many acres of land have been strip-mined? How many acres of forest have been clear-cut? How many miles upon miles of once-healthy wilderness has been transformed into dead, toxic, polluting cities? And yet we turn a blind eye at what will truly be our downfall, and problems like radiation and cloning scare the hell out of us, when there is either no risk, or risk so laughably small we could get away with ten times worth of it with no change.


In other words, the human race as a species definitely needs to sort out its priorities.
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Old 12th August 2010, 10:48 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

Lemme know when the author injects himself or otherwise absorbs 100 millisieverts per month over a period of time.

Then I'll chill out.

Clear cutting and strip mining should be outlawed everywhere. Importing clear cut and strip mined goods should be outlawed.
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Old 12th August 2010, 11:18 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

Dustinzgirl

For enough money, I will willingly expose myself to 100 millisieverts per month. This could be done quite easily by putting a suitable size piece of pitchblende under my bed. The question is : will you cough up the incentive?

One problem as I see it, is that most people are scared of numbers, and easily swayed by fake statistics, since they lack the essential numeracy to judge for themselves. Yet science depends heavily on quantitative measurements. If you want to understand science, and hence understand reality, you must learn to appreciate data that comes in the form of hard numbers.
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Old 13th August 2010, 01:03 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: Fear not moderate radiation

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Originally Posted by dustinzgirl View Post
Clear cutting and strip mining should be outlawed everywhere. Importing clear cut and strip mined goods should be outlawed.

That's exactly my point, DG. But the trouble is, how much of the population agrees with you and I? I would bet my bottom dollar that not very many do.



And, like skeptical, I would be willing to try a slight increase in radiation for the right incentive. I might be a little leery about the numbers projected, but surely humans are able to withstand more than the current legal limit and really have no bad side effects.

Radiation was never actually a big worry of mine, and certainly not a scenario I would see in facilitating the world's destruction. To be honest, I would figure some sort of pestilence to be more likely. One has to remember that our harnessing of radiation energy is only very recent in the world's history-it's only been from the twentieth century that it's really ever been used. And it doesn't seem very likely that there will ever again be a scenario like Hiroshima or Nagasaki that would ever threaten enough of the population to be a global concern.

No. What scares me more is a scenario more like the Black Death that swept Europe or the 1918 flu that swept North America. I'm not saying it'll be exactly those diseases, no, but who's to say what's evolving now, both artificially and naturally, right? I'm not saying to get into an automatic apocalypse tizzy over it, only that I say I think it's a more likely scenario for global disaster than worldwide radiation. And to be honest, with the way medicine actually has evolved, and public awareness, perhaps even pestilence isn't that big a concern.
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